Zak canted his head toward the two mages. “You two take the golems.”
Aaron bared his teeth. “Like hell I’m doing anything you—”
“Do as he says!” I yelled.
Zak didn’t wait to see if the mages would obey. As shadows rippled around him, blurring his shape, he launched ahead. Aaron and Ezra took identical steps backward, startled by the druid’s speed.
“Shit,” Aaron muttered.
“Enchanted medieval knights, incoming!” I reminded them urgently, already rushing toward Kai. “Hurry up and stop them!”
They finally got their asses in gear and sprinted to intercept the walking armor. I dropped to my knees beside Kai. His eyes were half closed as he wheezed, the gurgle in his lungs more pronounced. Hands trembling, I pulled his head onto my lap and carefully uncorked the tiny antidote vial.
“You need to swallow all of this, okay? Ready?”
He nodded weakly and opened his mouth. I poured the potion in and he swallowed repeatedly. Tearing the cork out of the larger vial, I helped him drink that one too. Behind me, battles raged—fire blasting heat across my back, clangs of steel on steel, Aaron and Ezra shouting as they coordinated attacks.
A scream rang out, piercing my ears. Nadine.
But I didn’t look. I held Kai’s shoulders, waiting. If the antidote didn’t work, then I would hold him until the very end. He wouldn’t die alone.
Eyes closed, he concentrated on breathing. One minute passed, then two. With a deep, rasping inhalation, he opened his eyes. As I gave him a weak smile, I realized my face was wet with tears.
“You still with me, Kai?”
“Yeah.” He gingerly pushed upright. “My lungs are a bloody mess, but whatever that second potion was …”
He trailed off, his gaze flashing past me. I finally turned.
Aaron was on fire again, hammering his sword into a suit of armor that refused to die. It swung its giant broadsword and he ducked, the steel cutting through the flames leaping off his back. Ezra had knocked the helmet off his, but the headless suit was still flailing its sword around.
Beyond their battle, a swirling cloud of shadow and darkness flashed with half-obscured bolts of crimson and jade. Zak had cut off Varvara’s escape, but he had yet to defeat the sorceress.
Kai pushed onto his hands and knees, and as he struggled to rise, I grabbed his arm and helped him. He leaned against me, panting, then started forward.
“What are you doing?” I hissed, wanting to stop him but afraid of yanking him off balance. “You’re half dead!”
“I’ve got one more good bolt in me.” He slipped a short silver knife from his vest. “If you help me, I can take her down.”
I glanced at the tiny knife. “What do you need me to do?”
“Electricity always tries to ground,” he explained as we hastened into the shadows, circling Aaron and Ezra’s fight. “I need something to aim at. Stab her with that, and I can hit her no matter what defense she uses.”
We moved swiftly, albeit with a lot of staggering, until we were level with Varvara. Shadows twirled around her and magic glowed up her arms. She had her elbow locked around Nadine’s neck, holding the girl against her as a living shield.
Zak stood ten paces away, his crimson saber in hand. Lallakai’s shadowy wings rose off his back and yellow magic ran up his left arm in an intricate pattern, sparking with each twitch of his muscles. Two of the crystal artifacts around his neck were active and glowing. He snapped a vial off his belt, nudged his mask up above his mouth, and pulled the cork out with his teeth. He poured the vial’s milky white contents over the bleeding gash in his right bicep.
Varvara chuckled softly. “How many antidotes do you carry, druid? I’ll find a poison you haven’t accounted for.”
“Do you think you have that much time?” he retorted coolly, casting the vial away. His phantom wings flared wide, making him seem huge.
“What the hell is he?” Kai muttered.
A druid. A really badass druid.
Gripping the silver knife in my hand, I left Kai crouching in the shadows and crept toward Varvara, trying to stay out of her peripheral vision. Though I couldn’t see Zak’s face or eyes, I knew when he spotted me; I felt the electric zing of his attention. Keeping the motions small, I raised Kai’s teeny metal conductor and pointed it at Varvara.
Zak flicked his sword, drawing the sorceress’s attention to the weapon—and away from me. His other hand clenched and a green rune on his inner arm shimmered, then erupted in crackling light that formed wide rings around his forearm.
“Careful, druid,” Varvara warned, tightening her grip on Nadine’s throat.
Zak laughed, a husky sound of contemptuous mocking. “You’re a fool, sorceress. If you think her life is the reason I’m here, well.” As he spoke, Lallakai’s wings flared wider—then faded to nothing. The tattoos didn’t reform on his arms. “You will see the error of your thinking.”
He angled his blade for his next attack. He was making his move—which meant I needed to make mine and hope Varvara didn’t notice me coming. I rose into a crouch like a sprinter waiting for the starting gun.
Cool, alien power washed over me. I gasped when my vision dimmed as though I’d put on sunglasses, and for a terrible instant, I thought Varvara had cast a spell on me.
“Go now,” a female voice, shimmering in a way no human throat could mimic, whispered in my ears—or was she whispering in my head?
Lallakai. The fae eagle had wrapped me in her shadow magic to hide my movements. Zak had sent her, leaving himself vulnerable.
I launched into a sprint.
Zak charged Varvara from the front. Shoving Nadine to the ground, the sorceress threw a hand up, deflecting his saber. Not missing a step, Zak swung his fist, coated in green fae magic. Varvara shouted an incantation—a familiar one. Ori repercutio.
His attack rebounded, slamming him backward. I closed in from behind, the blade clutched in my hand as I aimed to ram it into her kidney.
Varvara whipped around, faster than I would have thought possible, and her metal-adorned hand slammed into me. “Ori impello potissime!”
An impact like a semitruck hit my chest and I hurtled backward. Lallakai’s wings swept open, releasing me from her shadows, and the fae materialized behind me, countering my momentum with her body. I hit the ground, rolling painfully.
Gasping, I lurched up—but Kai’s knife was gone. I’d dropped it.
On Varvara’s other side, Zak was on his feet again, blood streaming from lacerations across his torso—his own reflected attack.
“You think I didn’t see that fool girl?” Varvara sneered. “You think I didn’t notice your familiar leave you? I did not survive this long by being inattentive.” She leveled a hand toward Zak. “The game is over, druid. I will kill you, take my new apprentice, and perhaps even claim the d—”
Her mouth hung open, but no more words came out.
At her feet, Nadine crouched with one hand braced on the ground. In her other hand was Kai’s knife—now buried in Varvara’s thigh. Varvara screamed furiously and smashed her metal-clad fist into Nadine’s face. The girl tumbled away from her and the sorceress raised her hand—
A blinding flash. The white bolt leaped out of the darkness and struck the knife. Sizzling power burst across Varvara and she convulsed. Lightning raged over her body then died away, and the sorceress crumpled, her clothes smoking and limbs twitching.
With one hand pressed against my bruised chest, I staggered toward Nadine. Zak reached her first, crouching as he gently turned her over. I knelt on her other side.
She smiled despite the blood dribbling from the gash in her cheek. “Druid,” she whispered. “You … came to save me?”
“Of course he did,” I told her matter-of-factly. “He even asked for my help. Practically begged me.”
I ignored his scorching glower. Not that I could see him glaring, but I could sure feel it.
“Tori …” Nadine frowned dazedly. “Who are you, really?”
“Ah, well, I actually work for a guild that was trying to save you from the dastardly clutches of the scariest druid on the west coast.” I shrugged. “But, I mean, not much I can do if you want to be an evil druid’s assistant.”
“You work for a guild?” she gasped, wide-eyed.
“Yeah.” I gently squeezed her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re safe, Nadine.”
She peeked shyly at Zak. “Can I … can I go back with you?”
“Yes,” he said, his husky voice surprisingly soft. “You’ll be safe with me.”
She grinned—the sugary grin of a teenager in love. Completely head over heels in love. I winced and hoped Zak knew how to gently let down an infatuated teen girl. As he helped her stand, she worriedly examined his bleeding lacerations.
I arched an eyebrow at his mask. “By the way, you look like a comic-book supervillain.”
“Hoods can fall off,” he growled. “And I didn’t want her seeing my face.”
At the mention of the sorceress, the three of us turned to the fallen woman. She lay face down, limbs twitching sporadically and her breath whispering harshly from her lungs. Hmm, still alive. Tough old buzzard, wasn’t she?